National League Rugby 2023/24: Season Preview

Sedgley Park are back in the third tier of English rugby for the first time in a decade
©Glenn Hutton

Absorbing, scintillating and unpredictable.

Please do add your own descriptions, but these are just three words that can be used to sum up the 2022-23 National League Rugby season which featured one of the best title races in recent history as well as some gripping relegation dogfights.

As Cambridge secured promotion to the Championship in the late April sunshine, it brought the curtain down on one of the most memorable campaigns - and we are almost ready to ride the rollercoaster again.

With some returning faces and some new to the scene, here is a breakdown of what we might expect across National One and National Two North, East and West this term.

National One

It is no exaggeration to say last year's pulsating three-horse title race provided the best entertainment across the whole of English rugby.

Cambridge, Rams and Sale FC each racked up 113 points or more and accumulated a staggering 67 wins between them but in the end, it was the Blood and Sand who prevailed by virtue of having recorded more draws (1) than second-placed Rams.

The aforementioned Rams and Sale may well be the ones to beat again this term, with the latter possibly hoping for it to be third time lucky after being involved in a similarly engrossing promotion battle with Caldy in 2021-22.

Both clubs have seemingly built from a position of strength with some eye-catching recruitment, but they will be wary of the returning Richmond who are back in the third tier following relegation from the Championship.

Over the summer, the club announced the position of Director of Rugby was 'being made redundant' meaning Steve Hill - who was affiliated with Richmond for 13 years - left The Athletic Ground with immediate effect.

During his tenure, Richmond gained promotion to the Championship on two occasions but now the reins have been fully handed over to Rob Powell, who worked under Hill so knows what it takes to navigate a side out of the third tier.

Richmond have also retained a large chunk of the squad they had in the Championship while the experience of Mark Bright could also be worth its weight in gold. Elsewhere, teams such as Rosslyn Park and Plymouth Albion will be looking to take another step this season after being on the outskirts of the title tussle in 2022-23.

The narrative surrounding the teams scrapping for survival last term was equally as exciting as the promotion race with Taunton Titans beating the drop following a final day of the season win over Leeds Tykes while newcomers Leicester Lions will be hoping to stay in National One at the first time of asking following 16 years in the fourth tier.

Gareth Collins' charges - who surged to the National Two West title - picked up the most victories (25 out of 26) and the most points (122) across the whole of National League Rugby in 2022-23 and they actually enter this campaign having lost just one of their last 34 matches - a run which stretches back to March 2022.

The Lions will be joined by the returning Blackheath, who are back in National One after a one-year absence. In the end, James Shanahan's side romped to the National Two East title and will be hoping the foundations they built last season can stand them in good stead while National Two North champions Sedgley Park will be competing in the third tier for the first time since 2012-13.

Last Season's Standings

Opening Day Fixtures: Bishop's Stortford v Cinderford, Chinnor v Darlington Mowden Park, Leicester Lions v Sale FC, Rams v Birmingham Moseley, Rosslyn Park v Plymouth Albion, Sedgley Park v Richmond, Taunton v Blackheath.

National Two North

After Sedgley Park clinched the National Two North title last year, those who were in the hunt and those who have dropped down to the fourth tier will be eager to hit the ground running and shape their promotion bids early.

You could argue last season's runners-up - Fylde - know exactly how to build up ahead of steam given they won their first eight matches in 2022-23 and lost on only three occasions throughout the campaign, so the usual suspects from Lancashire will be keen to go again.

But with the likes of Leeds Tykes (now under the guidance of Pete Seabourne) and Hull coming down from National One, that will be easier said than done. The latter stormed their way to a historic promotion in 2021-22 and it will be intriguing to see how they fare this time around after a difficult campaign in the third tier which saw them lose all but one of their fixtures.

Rotherham Titans - who finished fifth in 2022-23 - have looked handy in pre-season while Hull Ionians (3rd last year) might be hoping to challenge too as Graham Steadman's troops prepare for a third consecutive term in National Two North.

Joining National Two North from level five are Lymm and Billingham. Lymm edged out Blackburn in a phenomenal promotion battle in Regional 1 North West as Adam Fletcher's side clinched the title on points difference whereas it seemed no one could compete with Billingham in Regional 1 North East at times, as the men from Greenwood Road wrapped up the championship in February.

Last Season's Standings

Opening Day Fixtures: Fylde v Sheffield Tigers, Huddersfield v Hull Ionians, Lymm v Wharfedale, Otley v Hull, Rotherham v Billingham, Sheffield v Leeds Tykes, Tynedale v Preston Grasshoppers.

National Two East

Could we see a repeat in National Two East?

After Blackheath's relegation to the fourth tier was swiftly followed by an instant return to National One, Esher may well be targeting something similar after dropping out of level three last term.

The significant improvements made by Peter Winterbottom's side in the second half of last season - after beginning the campaign with nine straight defeats - will give the EEEs some encouragement but they do kick things off against last year's silver medalists Barnes.

Jack Heald's boys were excellent throughout the course of 2022-23 and eight wins from their final nine fixtures highlights the strength of the side from the capital so if it happens, it won't be a shock to see both Esher and Barnes towards the right end of the table when April comes around.

Dorking will be looking to match or even better last year's superb third-place finish with Armand Roux's men building nicely in the off-season while Jacob Ford's Bury St Edmunds seem to have also strengthened well. Worthing Raiders (who finished fourth in 2022-23) could be there or thereabouts again, especially with winger Curtis Barnes in their armoury.

The way North Walsham battled their way to safety in National Two East last term was certainly eye-catching - with fly-half Matt Hodgson instrumental in keeping them in the division - and under the stewardship of Niall Lear, they will now want to climb the table while the likes of new boys Wimbledon and Westcombe Park will be keen to avoid any relegation drama.

The Dons are back at level four for the first time since 2017-18 following a superb campaign last time out. Collin Osborne's side lost just once on their way to the Regional 1 South Central title while for Westcombe Park, they are back in National Two following an 11-year absence.

Last Season's Standings

Opening Day Fixtures: Bury St Edmunds v Old Albanian, Esher v Barnes, Henley v Guernsey, North Walsham v Worthing, Sevenoaks v Canterbury, Tonbridge Juddians v Westcombe Park, Wimbledon v Dorking.

National Two West

Despite all of their efforts, no one could get near Leicester Lions in National Two West last season. The Midlands club smashed their way to the title and promotion but their nearest challengers - Dings Crusaders and Clifton - will want to be at the sharp end once again.

With no side coming down from National One, the two Bristol-based clubs could well be in contention for the big prize while Ryan Watkins' Luctonians charged up the standings last year and will be keen to build on their fourth-place finish.

Chester may look to take a leaf out of Leicester Lions' book having been moved across to National Two West due to the way the RFU structure the leagues. Three seasons ago, the Lions were made to do the same and slowly built towards the top so the men from Hare Lane - who finished seventh in National Two North last year - will no doubt want to impress whilst being a bit of an unknown.

Hornets and Newport (Salop) - two sides who were promoted to level four for 2022-23 - both survived the drop last year so newcomers Dudley Kingswinford and Camborne will be hoping to follow suit.

Starting with DK, Neil Shillingford's men edged out Bridgnorth for the Regional 1 Midlands crown last year and are back at level four for the first time since 2013-14 while Camborne have definitely caught the eye with some of their recruitment over the summer.

The likes of prop Sam Rodman - who has Championship experience - as well as winger and prolific try-scorer Alex Ducker (from Plymouth Albion) will certainly excite fans down in Cornwall but the star arrival is undoubtedly former Fiji international Josh Matavasi.

The ex-Exeter, Worcester, Newcastle and Bath man has 'returned home' and he told TRU last month that Camborne will 'look to entertain' this season.

Last Season's Standings

Opening Day Fixtures: Camborne v Dings Crusaders, Chester v Exeter University, Clifton v Newport (Salop), Dudley Kingswinford v Luctonians, Hinckley v Bournville, Hornets v Loughborough Students, Redruth v Old Redcliffians.

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